Turning upfield

New Braunfels’ Zak Aleman turns upfield Friday night as teammate Rylan Meek looks to spring him with a block.

The Rangers overcame a sluggish start to lasso a playoff spot Friday night after surging past New Braunfels 20-3 at Unicorn Stadium.

Smithson Valley (5-4, 5-2) was held scoreless in the first half but used 20 unanswered points after intermission to sew up District 26-6A’s final postseason berth. The Rangers used a bend-but-don’t-break approach on defense and finally got their running game on track in the final two quarters to ride away with a crucial victory.

“We just maintained our confidence,” junior defensive lineman Trey Witcher said. “We knew our offense, defense and special teams were going to stay in the game and get this win. We didn’t panic — that was the big thing.”

The Unicorns (4-6, 3-4) saw their season come to a close despite an inspired run over the last several weeks. Head coach Glenn Mangold said he left the field proud of how his team performed.

“These last five weeks, they’ve played their tails off,” Mangold said. “They battled back and we put ourselves in a position to be two quarters away from earning a playoff spot.”

Smithson Valley more than doubled its total yardage for the game after taking the opening kickoff and marching 62 yards in five plays. Junior Jacob Forton capped the drive after finding a seam up the middle and bursting ahead for a 25-yard touchdown sprint.

Forton’s tough running helped ignite the Rangers’ offense, and he finished with a game-high 79 yards on just seven carries.

“We weren’t playing our type of football in the first half,” Forton said. “New Braunfels, they’re a great team, and they really brought it out there. We just knew that we had to keep pushing because soon these low-yardage gains are going to go for more and more and then you can break one out.”

The Rangers added two field goals by Mason Reid prior to the final stanza and clamped down on New Braunfels’ offense. Witcher and Tanner Hobeck applied heavy pressure to quarterback Peyton Driggers and helped force three straight turnovers on downs.

Smithson Valley’s Darlington Frasch tacked on a 1-yard TD run with 1:50 to go in the game to provide the final margin of victory.

“This is definitely our best brand of football right now,” Forton said. “I believe that the season has just started.”

New Braunfels controlled the time of possession in the first half, as the Unicorns’ defense smothered Smithson Valley. The Rangers jogged into the locker room at halftime with just 47 yards of total offense.

The biggest defensive highlights of the opening 24 minutes were a key third-down sack by Justin Smullen to snuff out Smithson Valley’s third possession and a tackle for loss by Hayden Kesselring on a reverse that put an end to the Rangers’ final drive of the second quarter.

On the flip side, New Braunfels’ offense amassed 200 total yards and 12 first downs in the opening two quarters, but a short field goal by Chase Mercer in the opening moments of the second period was the only score the Unicorns could manage.

New Braunfels’ next possession after Mercer’s kick showed plenty of promise, as Driggers targeted Ethan Duliban for a 29-yard gain before moving the sticks again with a 9-yard pass to Zak Aleman on third down. Following a 10-yard rumble by Joseph Leybas down to Smithson Valley’s 3-yard line, the Unicorns were pushed back by a negative play and a penalty as they faced a third-and-goal from the Rangers’ 6.

Driggers snapped off a quick throw to the left front corner of the end zone, but Smithson Valley cornerback Jalen Nutt read the pass perfectly and picked it off at the 1.

“I jumped the route,” Nutt said of the interception.

Not only did the play prevent New Braunfels from adding to its lead, but it appeared to light a fire under the Rangers’ defense that continued to burn throughout the remainder of the contest.

“That was probably the biggest momentum swing of the game,” Witcher said. “That turned it around for our defense.”

Smithson Valley now advances to the postseason, where a bi-district game against Austin Lake Travis awaits this coming Friday.

As for New Braunfels, Mangold said the contributions of the senior class won’t soon be forgotten.

“What a great three and a half years for them, building the program and keeping us in the playoff hunt,” Mangold said. “They did a great job leading our team.”

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